The Case for Legalizing Psychedelics

Photograph Source: Andrea Koerner – CC BY 2.0

Aside from issues that rightly dominate print headlines and social media, there is an inconspicuous national movement arising: legalizing psychedelics.

This movement may cause many boomers to smirk as they conjure up memories of Dr. Timothy Leary, the iconic advocate for using psychedelics. He coined the phrase, “Turn on, tune in, drop out.” Such skepticism also greeted the advocacy for legalizing marijuana, renamed more accurately as cannabis. In the sixties, it was unthinkable that possessing cannabis would be legal.

Fifty years ago, the jails were filled with Black citizens for smoking cannabis. Even in liberal California, after forty years of anti-cannabis laws, Black people were imprisoned ten times more often for possessing marijuana than other racial groups. As recently as 2010, cannabis arrests accounted for 52 percent of all drug arrests. Nearly eight million people were arrested on pot charges from 2000 to 2010, with cannabis arrests accounting for 52 percent of all drug arrests. And 88 percent of those arrests were for simple possession.

Nevertheless, despite police pursuing those arrests across the country, popular sentiment on using cannabis began shifting. In November 2012, Washington State and Colorado, through initiatives, became the first two states to legalize personal use of marijuana for adults twenty-one and over. Washington’s passed with 56 percent of the vote, and the majority voters in some of the most conservative regions of the state voted in favor of legalizing.

Long before those votes, the path toward legalizing cannabis occurred through approving its use for medical purposes. California effectively legalized medical cannabis in 1996, when voters approved Proposition 215 by a 56–44 margin. By 2016 most states had legalized the medical use of cannabis, reaching 36 states in 2020.

Psychedelics are following the same path as cannabis did in being legalized. Advocates for both drugs argue that they provide medicinal properties to relieve pain, particularly in end-of-life treatments. That approach worked for cannabis. An April 2021 Pew poll found national support at 91% for the medical use of cannabis.

But in taking that path, advocates for psychedelics don’t post any LSD signs. That’s probably because the history of LSD is embedded in the sixty’s colorful and anti-establishment counterculture. As a result, advocates emphasize plants, like psilocybin mushrooms, peyote, ayahuasca, and iboga. All of them have psychoactive chemicals that profoundly affect consciousness, like LSD.

These plants are categorized as entheogens, historically associated with religious ceremonies that predate the sixties by hundreds if not thousands of years. Consequently, much of the legislation advocates pursue the use of the term entheogens and not psychedelics.

At the local, state, and congressional levels, legislation has been introduced that sets the stage for using entheogens for treating illnesses. As is often the case in rolling out most progressive legislation, cities are at the forefront. Even though they have fewer financial resources than state or federal governments, their proximity to tackling local issues encourages more citizen involvement to initiate creative solutions. Moreover, if their efforts are successful, they help push the need for state initiatives and congressional hearings.

Denver was the first city in the U.S. to decriminalize psychedelics. In the spring of 2019, Denver residents passed Initiative I-301 by a razor-thin margin. It directs police via ordinance to treat enforcement of laws against the possession of psilocybin mushrooms as their lowest priority. Although it did prohibit the city from pursuing criminal penalties related to the use or possession of psilocybin mushrooms, they remain illegal under state and federal laws. It also allows police to continue to enforce laws against the distribution and sales of psilocybin mushrooms.

Oakland became the second city when their city council unanimously passed legislation to decriminalize psychedelic mushrooms in the summer of 2019. Oakland’s law extended coverage beyond psilocybin mushrooms so that possession of mushrooms and other plants and fungi containing psychoactive substances would also be decriminalized.

The following year, Washington D.C. also ran an initiative in the fall of 2020 to decriminalize “natural psychedelics.” It catapulted to victory with 76 percent of the vote.

Portland residents didn’t have to go the initiative route or lobby the city council because, in November 2020, 56 percent of Oregon voters approved initiative 109 to legalize psilocybin mushrooms for medical use. In that same election, initiative 110 passed. It decriminalized small amounts of drugs, including psilocybin and lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), among other drugs.

In Seattle, the city council is working to decriminalize psychedelics citing new research, that show psychedelics can help treat mental health disorders like drug addiction, depression, and PTSD. Seven of nine council members signed a letter asking the Overdose Emergency and Innovative Recovery (OEIR) task force led by the grassroots organization VOCAL-WAfor recommendations for liberalizing the use of entheogens. The task force released a one-page summary headed by the suggestion that penalties should be removed for controlled substances.

Except for Spokane, Washington, which was going to file an initiative to decriminalize psychedelics, the most visible and successful efforts have occurred in larger cities dominated by liberal or democratic politics. That demographic profile is also found in the smaller cities hosting large universities such as Santa Cruz, CA, Cambridge, MA, and Ann Arbor, MI. Those cities also liberalized their drug enforcement policies that include psychedelics.

The decriminalization movement needs to attract voters beyond a liberal constituency to sustain a national movement. Advocates in cities that are more purple than blue may find passing legislation more difficult. For instance, in Spokane, Washington, which has many Republican voters, advocates have had to ease back on their efforts. They just don’t have as large or as active a constituency as the more successful cities in changing the laws.

However, passing more initiatives in blue cities will build momentum for states adopting more liberal legislation. That is a similar path that cannabis took. Oregon was the first state to liberalize cannabis laws through decriminalization in 1973, and it took 26 years for the first state, California, to legalize medical cannabis. By 2021, 46 states have legalized cannabis for medical use. In 11 states, it is legal for recreational use.

Denver’s initiative to decriminalize psychedelics seems to have influenced public opinion in Colorado. A survey conducted by RBI Strategies & Research showed that some 50% of Colorado voters would support measures to expand psilocybin decriminalization throughout the state and legalize psychedelic mushrooms statewide. Colorado’s state legislature even passed the HB19–1263 law, which went into effect in March 2020, changing personal possession of any Schedule 1 or 2 drug in Colorado from a felony to a misdemeanor. However, other states have yet to adopt such legislation.

On the federal level, Congress and the presidency have not addressed the issue of decriminalizing psychedelics. However, Democrats have introduced legislation on liberalizing drug policies. For example, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., filed an amendment to a large-scale appropriations bill in 2019 to end the prohibition of federal money being spent on “any activity that promotes the legalization of any drug or other substance in Schedule I” of the Controlled Substances Act. It didn’t pass then or in 2021, but it gained about 50 “yes” votes on the second vote.

This year Reps. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-NJ) and Cori Bush (D-MO) are sponsoring the Drug Policy Reform Act (DPRA) to decriminalize personal use and possession of drugs. Most importantly, it would shift federal drug policy from the Department of Justice to Health and Human Services.

Republicans in CongressCongress have generally opposed lessening restrictions on personal drug use. However, their constituency seems to be more open to it. For instance, according to a 2017 Gallup poll, most Republicans support legalizing cannabis for the first time.

Outside of politics, serious research is being conducted on the potential use of psychedelics like psilocybin to address health issues. Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research has increased its research in this area of study. Somewhat surprisingly, in the fall of 2018, under the Trump administration, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration granted psilocybin “breakthrough therapy” designation for its potential to help with treatment-resistant depression. In addition, this year, the Harvard Law School launched the Project on Psychedelics Law and Regulation (POPLAR) to inform legislation and help clinicians promote safety, innovation, and therapeutics in the medicinal use of psychedelics.

Political progress is being made despite State and Federal reluctance and resistance to changing the laws. However, with the emerging scientific and academic commitment to research the possible benefits of psychedelics, politicians will be more comfortable making changes.

It took over 40 years of constant grassroots efforts to get where we are today on using cannabis legally, but advocates need a long-range game plan.

Cannabis’s success was partly due to the eventual recognition of how the enforcement of anti-cannabis laws resulted in minorities, particularly the Black community, who bore the brunt of arrests and imprisonment. However, the situation with the use or possession of psychedelics is different. First, it is not a street drug. Second, arrests for possession and sale of psychedelics are minuscule to what they were for cannabis. According to the non-profit Drug Policy Alliance, only an annual average of 0.1% of the U.S. population reported using any drug under the “hallucinogen” category (including psilocybin) within the last 30 days between 2002 and 2014.

Consequently, decriminalizing psychedelics is an invisible issue for two organizations with the largest and most active communities engaged in social justice issues, the NAACP and the Human Rights Campaign. Local Progress, a national network of over a thousand progressive local officials, focuses on other urban justice issues. However, they support the Drug Policy Alliance efforts urging the Biden Administration to focus on harm reduction and abandon criminalization.

Monica Bridges, Co-Chair for Education and Outreach of Decrim Nature Seattle (DNS), an advocacy group that supports ending the prohibition of plant-based psychedelics, spoke out on how the role of psychedelics can help cities tackle addiction and generational trauma. “This is about developing community. I’ve seen a lot of this Western mentality, where people want to extract the compound, put it in a pill, monetize it, and then think that’s going to cure everything. But it’s not just the medicine. It’s the embodiment of the medicine in relation to community.”

A strategy for building a national movement should support psychedelics to address a community’s social justice issues and the individual’s freedom to explore their creative consciousness. Both activities recognize thatcitizens in a functioning democracy should control their lives in a safe and non-oppressive manner. This dual approach can bridge the ideological divide in our nation by refocusing on an issue that can work for the greater good regardless of one’s party affiliation.

Ironically, the genesis to decriminalize out-of-date repressive drug laws emerged from what the media often characterized as the disruptive sixties. But then, it was an era where students encouraged the nation to look at the status quo and ask, “Can’t we do better?” That spirit did not die. Instead, it remains alive and the driving force for demanding more accountability from our leaders to protect our citizens’ welfare and freedoms. I cover the history and legacy of this era in my just-released book, Student Power, Democracy and Revolution in the Sixties (by Cambridge Scholars Publishing).

Nick Licata is author of Becoming A Citizen Activist, and has served 5 terms on the Seattle City Council, named progressive municipal official of the year by The Nation, and is founding board chair of Local Progress, a national network of 1,000 progressive municipal officials.